It Could Be St. Luke´s Body, After All

DNA Test Supports Ancient Claim in Padua

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PADUA, Italy, OCT. 17, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The remains in an ancient lead coffin may indeed be those of St. Luke, as long believed, according to a new DNA analysis.



Dr. Guido Barbujani, a population geneticist at the University of Ferrara, Italy, had extracted DNA from a tooth in the coffin, the New York Times reported.

Barbujani concluded that the DNA was characteristic of people living near the region of Antioch, on the eastern Mediterranean, where Luke is said to have been born. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the tooth belonged to someone who died between A.D. 72 and A.D. 416, the Times said.

A report by Barbujani and colleagues appeared Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.

The Evangelist, according to ancient sources, was a physician who was born in Antioch and died at 84 in about A.D. 150 in the Greek city of Thebes. The coffin with his remains was taken to Constantinople in 338 and later moved to Padua, Italy.

Barbujani and his colleagues speculate that the coffin may have been sent out of Constantinople for safekeeping, either during the reign of the pagan Emperor Julian, or during the iconoclast period of the eighth century, when many religious objects were destroyed.

The coffin is known to have been in Padua at least since 1177. It was placed in a marble sarcophagus and kept in the Basilica of Santa Giustina.

It was last opened in 1562 and seems to have been somewhat ignored until October 1992. At that time, the bishop of Padua, Antonio Mattiazzo, received a letter from Hieronymos, the Orthodox metropolitan of Thebes, asking that part of the relics to be donated to the site of Luke´s tomb in Thebes.

Bishop Mattiazzo, according to an article in November 2000 in Traces, a Catholic journal, decided to investigate the relics under the leadership of Dr. Vito Terribile Viel Marin, a Univeristy of Padua pathologist. In 1998 the 400-year-old seals were removed from the lead coffin, and the study began.

The dimensions of the coffin exactly fit the tomb in Thebes considered to be Luke´s. In the coffin was a skeleton, but not the skull.

Barbujani and his colleagues say the body seems to have decomposed in the coffin because of matching insect marks on the lead and the pelvis, which has fused to the lead.

The spread in the radiocarbon dating indicates at least two possibilities. One is that the body is that of Luke or a man who died at the same time, the other is that for some reason, a new body was put in the coffin in Constantinople around 300.

To help distinguish between the two, Barbujani, an expert on the genetics of European populations, analyzed fragments of DNA from the tooth, a canine, found on the floor of the coffin, and sought to compare them with likely living representatives of the ancient populations of Antioch and of Constantinople. An Antioch match would suggest the body could be Luke´s.

Since the population of Antioch now includes many Kurds, Barbujani sampled the DNA of Syrians from nearby Aleppo. In place of the inhabitants of ancient Constantinople, now Istanbul, he tested Greeks from Attica and Crete.

The DNA from the Padua tooth, a type inherited only through the mother´s line, turned out to resemble Syrian DNA more than Greek DNA.

"Our data tell us the body is absolutely compatible with a Syrian origin," he said. "But I am aware of the limitations of the DNA data, and though a broad spectrum of ages is possible, the most likely is 300 A.D." Hence both possibilities should remain open, he said.

The head of the body was removed by the Emperor Charles IV in 1354 and taken from Padua to Prague, where it rests in the Cathedral of St. Vitus, in the Prague Castle.

"There were officially two heads of St. Luke, one at Prague and one in Rome," Barbujani said. At Bishop Mattiazzo´s request, the Prague skull was brought to Padua and found to fit perfectly to the topmost neck bone. The tooth, found on the floor of the coffin, also fit into the right socket in the jawbone.

Though many relics turn out to be forgeries, the Padua body seems more likely than most to be what it is claimed to be, although exact proof is lacking.